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Safe House

A Home Inspection Can Save Money and Grief
by Kerrie Kenned

Chicago homeowner Tom Robinson thought he was doing everything right when he bought his two-flat in Roscoe Village two years ago. A long-time Roscoe Village resident, he knew the market well. He had looked at many two-flats before settling on this one — he liked the location and knew it would be no problem to rent out the other unit.

What he didn’t know, though, was that the roof was leaking, the furnace needed to be replaced and there were serious wiring problems in the building.

Robinson didn’t know about these problems before he bought the property even though he hired an inspector to find them. He may as well have saved himself the money, because Robinson hired an inspector that his real estate agent recommended.

“It never really occurred to me that my real estate agent might recommend someone who’d overlook problems just so the sale would go through,” Robinson said. “I guess when you think about it, it’s kind of a conflict of interest.

Home inspector Jerry Comer agrees. “Realtors want to control the transaction from start to finish and I don’t blame them, but the only way I can truly represent my clients is to separate myself from anyone who’s trying to control what I’m doing.”

On the other hand, if an inspector is on your side, you could save a lot in unnecessary expenses. Since inspections are completed before the closing, the buyer is able to renegotiate the deal or even call it off when big problems are discovered. Case in point: Comer recently did a home inspection where he uncovered numerous large scale problems, including asbestos in the heat ducts and a furnace that would cost nearly $7,000 to replace. It wasn’t enough to change the buyer’s mind, but at least he was able to allow the seller to absorb these costs.

If there’s any one place that Comer tends to find problems, it’s probably the furnace. In fact, he says 93 percent of furnaces over 10 years old have cracked heat exchangers. “It’s the No.1 problem I run into on older construction, Comer says. But new construction isn’t without its problems, either. “Most of those 85 percent efficient furnaces you get in new construction start to go bad after 3-5 years, sometimes less,” Comer says. All in all, a full 30 percent of the homes Comer inspects have bad furnaces.

When you consider that the average cost of a furnace is $1,800-$2,000, the cost of getting your property inspected starts to take wing. Comer’s inspection price starts at about $250 for a two-bedroom condo, but the price goes up for larger units and single-family homes. Add-ons, such as environmental testing, can also step up the cost.

But these add-ons may be well worth it. Environmental issues, says Comer, are one of the biggest concerns of today’s homeowner. From asbestos to deadly black mold; lead paint, to radon, there are real reasons to be cautious.

According to Comer, it’s not unusual to find asbestos around hot water pipes, duct work and numerous other places in older homes. “Asbestos was used in probably 3,000 different products in older homes,” Comer estimates. Lead paint is another fairly common problem found in homes built before 1978. In fact, Cook County has the highest rate of child lead paint poisoning in the nation. The problem occurs when fine particles of lead paint get into the air, often when windows and doors are closed. Not surprisingly, there’s a higher occurrence of lead dust in the air in the spring time, when windows are first opened.

Radon., a naturally occurring radioactive gas, can be found in any home, old or new. Yet certain areas, mainly in the suburbs, are more susceptible to radon leakage. Since radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, it’s important to test for it.

Comer will gladly test your home for radon — as well as mold, asbestos and lead paint. “We take samples and have them analyzed at an approved lab,” Comer says. “Well also test the drinking water and do separate indoor air quality inspection.”

But what if you’re buying new construction? Do you still need to concern yourself with an inspection? According to Comer, there are plenty of problems associated with new construction, because the general quality of construction is so poor now. “It’s just a lot less professional,” Comer says. “The workmanship isn’t what it used to be.”

Surprisingly, one issue new construction buyers need to be aware of is air quality. “Houses are built so tight now, you get a lot of mold,” Comer says. “The moisture has to go somewhere. If you look in the attics of a lot of these new houses, you’re going to find problems. Because they don’t have adequate ventilation. And the built-in humidifiers create a breeding ground for mold.”

If Robinson had to do it over again, he might have asked his real estate lawyer for a home inspector referral, a practice that is generally considered sound. He could also check with the American Society of Home Inspectors for the name of a certified inspector. The organization, which specified that a basic inspection of a small home should take at least two hours or more, requires inspectors to adhere to a strict code of ethics that protects from conflict of interest and ensures independence.

All of which adds up to an honest assessment of the quality of the home you plan to purchase and the hidden costs associated with buying it. “Rarely do I do an inspection where the money that my clients save in future repairs doesn’t cover the cost of the inspection and then some,” Comer says.

Reprinted from Chicago Free Press 61
May 3, 2000

(Note: The information in this article is intended to be general in nature. Plan to discuss your particular circumstances with an attorney for how this might apply to you.)